The Tennessee Legislature is once again seriously considering whether to ask voters if the state’s attorney general should be chosen by the people.
Under the current selection method, the person who serves in the position is appointed by the Supreme Court.
Senate Joint Resolution 63 seeks to amend Article VI, Section 5 of the Tennessee Constitution to require that “beginning with the November 2020 general election, and every six years thereafter, an attorney general and reporter for the state shall be popularly elected by the qualified voters of the state and shall hold office for a term of six years and until a successor is elected and qualified.”
The vote on SJR63 was 23-9-1. Notably, Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey Voted against it. Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, voted in favor.
Also voting yes was Republican Mark Green of Clarksville, who in the past has advocated for transferring AG-selection authority to the Legislature. Green said a popularly elected attorney general is “the next best alternative.”
“The will of the people needs to be heard,” said Green.
The measure wouldn’t appear on the ballot until 2018 if it were to win final approval from the Legislature.
Tennessee’s current attorney general, Herbert Slatery, was appointed to an eight-year term last year. His term expires 2022.
Tennessee is the only state in the nation in which the government’s chief legal officer is selected by the state’s high court.
Forty-three states popularly elect their attorney general, and the rest have some form or combination of gubernatorial or legislative appointment.
Numerous efforts over the years to alter the current process have come up short in Tennessee’s lengthy process of amending the state constitution, the last step of which is putting the question before the electorate in a statewide referendum.
As with past attempts, the latest elect-the-AG push is sponsored in the Senate by Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet.
“Our state is tied for dead last in the number of statewide elected officials,” Beavers said, referring to the governor and two United States senators. “We have only three people who are elected statewide. It is time we let the citizens have more of a say in their government.”
Beavers squared off during floor debate against the Senate’s most vocal opponent of changing the current system, Doug Overbey of Maryville.
Both hit upon points they’ve made on multiple occasions when the issue has come up before.
Overbey noted that he’s so familiar with the talking points that “it puts me in mind of the 1993 movie ‘Groundhog Day’ starring Bill Murray, where Bill Murray’s character was in a time loop, repeating the same thing, day after day after day.”
“This issue has been before the General Assembly as far back as I can remember, and it has never advanced to the ballot, and for good reason,” he said. “That’s why it seems to me we are in a time loop repeating the same thing year after year after year.”
Overbey went on to say Tennessee’s current system “has worked and continues to work since the adoption of the 1870 constitution.”
“I would submit that we only change what has been in place when it no longer works,” said Overbey, who himself submitted an application to become the state’s more powerful lawyer last summer but was passed over by the Supreme Court in favor of Slatery.
Overbey added that he believes the current system has produced a long line of attorneys general who proved themselves independent and untainted by higher-office political ambitions and partisan agendas.
By contrast, Beavers argued that the office of attorney general isn’t as institutionally autonomous as supporters of the system plan like to claim.
“I am not trying to disparage our current attorney general, who I believe to be a fine lawyer, however let’s not fool ourselves,” she said. “Our AG was chosen by some judges who he himself interviewed and helped put on the bench. So don’t tell me that there are no politics in the current system.”
Prior to becoming attorney general, Slatery served as chief legal counsel to Gov. Bill Haslam. In that role he was charged with advising the governor on appointments to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which included Justices Holly Kirby in 2013 and Jeffrey Bivins last spring. Both were on the high court when the five justices tapped Slatery to become attorney general last September.
GOP Leader Norris said good points can be made both for and against the attorney general becoming a popularly elected position in state government — and voters are capable of sorting those arguments out for themselves.
“What can’t be denied is that the people should have their right to vote,” said Norris. “The debate begins here again today, but it will continue. Let the people decide.”
Any effort to amend Tennessee’s founding document must win simple majority support in both the House of Representatives and the Senate during one two year session — and then two-thirds majority support in the next two-year session. Afterward, it goes to the people for a vote.
A House version of SJR63 died in committee this year, but can be brought up again next year.